Study may point to genetic link to political choice
September 18, 2008
In an interview last week, U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin talked a lot about blinking.
"You can't blink" and "we must not blink," Republican John McCain's nominee told ABC News anchor Charles Gibson in response to questions about her readiness for office and the fight against terrorism.
But a new study in the prestigious journal Science says that people with right wing views blink and flinch far harder than liberals when confronted with startling stimuli.
In the first study to directly link politics and physiology, the University of Nebraska led study suggests that people who hold conservative views on things like foreign policy and gun control, are more frightened than those with a more left-leaning bent on those issues.
"We're not trying to say that your church and your family and your school and the people you hang out with don't matter," says Doug Oxley, the lead study author.
"What we're introducing to the field of political science is this notion that there is a physical basis to these beliefs as well."
In the study, 46 volunteers were asked about their political views on such hot button issues as immigration and gun control, which have a strong correlation to voting booth behaviour.
Researchers then measured the strength of the study subjects' "startle reflexes" through the strength of their blink responses and electrical activity on their skin when confronted with startling images or noises.
The study found that people who held more "protective" views on theses issues - those who would limit immigration or prefer a more unfettered right to be armed - had stronger startle reflexes to the stimuli.
In other words, they not only blinked, they blinked harder.
While the physiological connection between startle reflexes and protective political views has yet to be established, researchers say that its mere existence suggests there is some genetic component to individual voting preferences.
"People have said `come on, there's no way that there is a piece of DNA that codes for an attitude on whether you're for or against gun control'," says Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the Lincoln, Ne. school and a study co-author.
"And it makes sense to us that there has to be a fairly complex causal chain between genes and political attitudes and behaviour that involves both biology and the environment."
Smith says the study keyed on the sympathetic nervous system, which among other things controls involuntary reactions - such as heart rates, sweating or blinking - to sudden threats.
"When something goes `bang!' behind us, we tend to have these involuntary reactions to that environmental stress," Smith says.
"The idea is that those who are biologically sensitive to threat in their environment, are more likely to be supportive of public policies that deal with threats in the larger political environment," he says.
Neither researcher had any comment on the current federal election in Canada, which pits a right wing Conservative party against more left leaning opponents.
And as for the blink-averse Palin, an improbable new star in the U.S. political firmament, Oxley would make no judgements.
"Our research is not making any judgements about it," he says.
"The blink is a measure of something going on within the brain, within the body, within the nervous system...but it isn't really what they were referring to in the political campaign recently."
Wow, what a shock, cons are frightened little kids hiding under their beds.